Gardening 101

Growing A Realistic Garden

Landscaped garden

The other day I found myself throwing several gardening magazines down in disgust. Equating them to the fashion and food porn we see every day, where hipless models serve as clothes hangers and where pictured tomatoes are without blemish.

What, you ask, is my problem with these? I have to believe that these pictures are fake, that the photographed garden has been primped and pampered for the occasion. Look closely: Where are the flopping plants? Where are the inevitable spaces in the perennial border? Where are the plants crying for deadheading?

Am I the only gardener who suffers from drooping plants? As I have often said, I am an untalentged plant staker—some people can stake plants in a highly decorative manner whereas I simply end up with an ungainly result. I have many lilies, some over ten feet in height. I thought I’d solved my problem when I discovered six-foot long rebar stakes but, at the first downpour, these giant lilies double over where the stake ends and the lily stalks are on their own. This happens in real gardens.

New roses can become gawky with some canes growing faster than other ones. Sometimes I cut the over exuberant cane, leaving an obvious mark while at other times I stake it. Am I the only gardener coping with adolescent roses?

I suspect that garden stylists slip a planter into those bare areas of the perennial border that inevitably occur. Plants die, gardeners constantly add and subtract sections of the border, and some plants fail to grow into their designated spaces. Notice those photographed borders: They are as unreal as those beautiful models portrayed in fashion magazines.

Vegetable gardens are also unreal in this neverland portrayed in garden magazines. Have you ever seen a tomato vine loaded with so many unblemished tomatoes? Squash villains seemingly don’t exist in this world. The garlic heads plucked from the ground are huge. The lettuce never bolts.

Weeds obviously do not exist. Now one of my talents is that I’m a gifted weeder. I have a good eye for weeds and know which weeds want to exist in my garden. Between my eagle eye and the pine bark mulch, I can keep weeds to a minimum—yet, even I will suddenly notice a tulip poplar seedling, a horrid nutsedge, or a pokeweed that I have overlooked. To garden is to weed but ask yourself this: Would you know it from looking at these magazines?

Therefore, I have decided to become an imaginary editor of an imaginary garden magazine. What would I do? I would choose a nice garden, as we really aren’t interested in deserted gas station lots for this profile. I would ask the photographer to take pictures as the garden is, not as the garden we dream of. I would show the garden with all of it warts—and worts.

And then I would ask the gardener questions. How does this lavender have such a perfect shape? Why is this salvia so well behaved when mine sprawls? How much fertilizer do you use? Do you spray your roses? When you designed and planted this garden, what was your end purpose?

Gardening is a hit-and-miss occupation. Some plants grow beautifully in my garden while others, such as Echinacea, give me horrendous headaches. I would ask my pretend gardeners how they can grow this native plant that eludes me. I can grow many roses but ‘Mrs. R. M. Finch’ simply eludes me. Why is this? I have no idea but would love for my imaginary magazine to discover the answer.

I would also want to hear of the gardening mistakes. Without mistakes, how can one call oneself a true gardener? One of my great gardening mistakes was to plant Chasmanthium latifolium, a native plant sometimes called “wild sea oats.” This plant loved me, loved my soil and seeded throughout the garden. However, when the seedlings appear, they are incredibly deep rooted, making it almost impossible to remove. And, it loves to grow in the middle of other plants making it difficult to resort to chemical warfare—and I understand this is a warfare tactic many do not want to undertake.

We learn from our mistakes. Consequently, when a plant is described as “exuberant” or “soon you’ll have enough to share with the neighborhood,” I stay clear of that particular plant. So, in my imaginary magazine, I’d ask the gardeners to describe their mistakes.

I would also make sure that recommendations for plants for specific parts of the country were accurate. A glaring example of a bad recommendation I just saw in a magazine was the recommendation of Oriental lilies for North and South Carolina. Oriental lilies require temperate moist summers if they are to bloom in August. They are wonderful for northern climes but please plant the Orienpet lilies instead. Orienpet lilies, a hybrid of Oriental and Trumpet or Aurelian lilies, have all the desirable attributes of the Oriental lilies—but can take the heat of our summers.

Of course, I’m realistic enough to suspect that my garden magazine wouldn’t sell. My daydream of a realistic garden is undoubtedly not shared by the public. So, perhaps the public is really getting what it wants: models without hips, perfect strawberries, and perennial borders that blend into one another in their seemingly endless perfection.

After joining the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners in 2003, Kit Flynn now has emeritus status. She also writes gardening articles for the Durham County Extension Master Gardener newsletter, an online magazine “Senior Correspondent,” and “The Absentee Gardeners” column for “The Blowing Rocket” with Lise Jenkins.